| Miles of Trials on South Lookout
Thursday, August 2nd
With almost 14 hours of Dallas in our legs from the previous day, Aaron and I decided that another grunt up Pilot Knob was not in our best interest for the day. While assessing the situation, we decided that South Lookout Peak, from Ophir Pass, would make for the easier, rest day we desired…..or so we thought.
After dawdling around waiting for Kiefer to make up his mind on whether he was staying in Telluride or not, and then getting our stuff together, we finally reached Ophir Pass at 6:25am. A few minutes later, we were talus-bound for South Lookout.
Upon cresting the first bump, we were presented with our first views of the beautiful, and deep, Crystal Lake. Gazing up the ridge spine, we saw the first of several bumps which would turn our day into more of an adventure than the topo laid hint to.
Beautiful Crystal Lake in morning light
With obvious, gentler slopes lying to the climber's left, we headed in that direction with hopes that we'd find easy access to gain the ridge proper. As we rounded the bend, multiple, loose gullies brought those pipe dreams to a crashing halt. Well, looks like it's loose gully time!
Aaron after topping out of his loose gully
Ascending the gullies was a pain! The yellowish-orange in their centers seemed attractive enough to climb yet every other handful ended up staying in your hand, or worse yet, crashing down the gully. Halfway up, one of my foot holds rocketed out from under me sending chills up my spine. For obvious reasons, we stayed clear of each other until gaining the ridge. From here, South Lookout wasn't yet in view and Point 12,935 seemed to be further away than it really was with numerous ridge points between us.
Luckily, the ridge points had more bark to them than bite. A little up, a little down, and a little bit of tricky scrambling before we found ourselves at the base of the slot gully running straight down the north face of Point 12,935. Before arriving at the base, we decided that one-at-a-time passage would be the safest way to climb this face. I waited as Aaron scooted on up this face, some sizeable loose rocks shot the gully making me very happy there would be no climbers above me during my turn.
The north face of Point 12,935 and its loose gully
Despite the gnarly appearance, climbing the lower portion of the gully wasn't too awful. As I neared the main section, the gully steepened and the climbing became tedious. After picking my way through most of the gully, I was preparing to leave this creepy place when BAM…..both my footholds and my right hand hold gave out. My legs shot straight down, my head cracked back against the rock surface(thanks goodness for helmets!) and my body spun around leaving me face out from the rock hanging by my left hand hold. Mother flippers, that hurts; let's get out of this hole now! Quickly, I pulled myself up and out of that gully and sat pretty pissed at the top.
Once my mind had settled, I walked over the top of the point to where Aaron had situated himself with a grand view of the often unseen east face of South Lookout. During our rendezvous with the gully, dark clouds which had been terrorizing the Wilsons with rain and thunder since 7:45am were beginning to move our way. It was 8:55am, time to tuck tail and run for Ophir Pass. Fortunately, the return trip was uneventful.
South Lookout Peak‘s East Face from Point 12,935(The true summit is the second summit to the left of the major gap)
Friday, August 3rd
On the return trip to Telluride, we determined that our best plan of action would be to attack South Lookout from Clear Lake. This allowed us the option of climbing V 5(V is the old San Juan Mountaineers note for Vermillion) afterwards.
Another early morning had us on the road at 4am. The now familiar route brought us to Ophir Pass but this time we kept going down the other side, south onto route 550 and west up the Mineral Creek drainage. Near the 4wd road turnoff for Clear Lake, first light revealed a foggy, Cascade-like morning. Though cloudy and overcast, this day already had a special feeling to it.
As we proceeded further up the road, Vermillion, Golden Horn and Pilot Knob jumped out of the clouds to reveal themselves in all their morning glory. Aaron hit the brakes as we jumped out of the vehicle for some pictures. The remainder of the drive continued this way as we continuously stopped for some shots. Later than we intended, we arrived at Clear Lake(12,000') thankful for the high trailhead.
Vermillion, Golden Horn and Pilot Knob above the clouds in the morning alpenglow
The moist, tall grass made for instantaneously, wet boots as we slogged our way up the steep slopes towards the towers along the South Lookout-V 5 ridge. As we ascended, we veered left a bit in order to avoid of the time-consuming towers. Just before the westernmost ones, steep side hilling had become even more of a pain so we resorted to climbing directly towards the ridge just before the final towers.
On the ridgecrest, we were able weave our way around most of the towers to save time. Just before arriving at the final tower, we passed under an overhang loaded with cold, slow-dripping water. While removing my rain jacked from the pack, the Needles and Grenadiers poked their heads through the foggy morning.
The Needles and Grenadiers through the early morning fog
From here, we hurried over the final block to the base of South Lookout's Southern Summit. It's nothing much and isn't really part of the route(we didn't even know that was it then). An ominous looking South Lookout loomed before us.
Without any other options, we began to descend down a wide, scree gully and across a flower-covered section. At this point, we were on route as we crossed another loose scree gully. When we reached the base of an inhospitable looking gully, dark, wet and foreboding…..okay, let's give it an appealing name to make this place sound brighter. Alright, the "Gully of Death", that should the trick! Peering over the edge of the adjacent cliff band looked even less appealing. Great, up the Gully of Death it is.
The Gully of Death
Apparently I'm the group climbing sucker. The look on Aaron's face made me volunteer to go first…..go figure! Entering this place gave me the creeps. The wet, dripping rocks drew my focus while not looking for the next hold. Not soon enough, I reached the spot where a ledge comes into the gully. I wanted to be on this ledge to get the heck outta the gully yet this boulder blocked my passage. It wouldn't let me under…..climbing over didn't work either…..and now my body was stuck halfway up. Then the dirt foothold came into my field of vision. The hold was just big enough to aid my passage across the rock. After a few uncomfortable moves, I was on the ledge out of the gully…..and not a second to soon. When Aaron arrived on the ledge, we spent a moment wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
Looking around the corner, we were confronted with another set of loose ledges. Although they weren't technically challenging, the modest exposure combined with our fresh memories of the Gully of Death made them pretty, darn sketchy.
At their apex, we crossed a wide, dirt-scree slope(we should have ascended here) to reach more loose, East Face climbing.
Thinking we were now under the southern summit, we began to pick our way up the exposed, East Face through waist-high cliff bands. Although we never gained anything more than a broken rhythm, we were pleased with the progress. Nearing the top of this block, I moved out onto the north side of the face only to spot a few red rappel slings adjourning the cliffs at the base of the next, northern summit. The path between the two blocks was a virtual cliff on all sides. And the dirt path connecting this face with that next face is 500+ feet below us. What to do now? Are we going to be facing a third day trying for this summit?
Nothing looked promising to me, but Aaron thought there might be a spot on the backside of the rock where we could rappel from. He decided to climb the block while I sat there and pondered our futures. This can't be; South Lookout is driving me insane! Then came the last words I expected Aaron to say. "The summit, I'm on the summit"! WTF mate, how'd you get there? Apparently, we crossed the southern summit way back by the ridge without even knowing it. A few minutes later, Aaron handed me the summit jar upon arriving at the top. It's not what you'd expect; the summit area is quite large. With frayed nerves and building clouds, we limited our stay to ten minutes before rappelling off the south side of the summit block.
Rappeling off the summit block, Howdy folks!
The rappel deposited us at the top of the wide, dirt-scree slope. We chose to descend this slope and that began to direct us towards the easiest route. When the slope narrowed, we entered a tight gully which dropped straight down the East Face for several hundred feet before hooking descender's right around the corner. Here you crossed a ledge system which dumped you out at the base of a ramp roughly 150-200 feet below the Gully of Death. As we rounded the corner, I began making cairns to mark this corner for those who follow. From here, it's a simple ascent across the Flower Gully(you'll understand when you get there) and up dirt-scree slopes to the Southern Summit. We decided to top out on the Southern Summit and soak in the view.
From here, I decided to traverse to V 5 while Aaron descended to his vehicle. The traverse was mainly class 2+ while avoiding the ridge's major obstacles. Every so often, there was a short section of scrambling, yet nothing too horrible.
In the meantime, Aaron had reached his vehicle and decided to drive it a quarter-mile down the road and climb V 5. Upon reaching the base of V 5, Aaron greeted me with shouts of "Jamie, Jamie" while waving his hands to get my attention. The upper cliff bands had blocked his progress and he had elected to wait for me before finishing the mountain off.
Knowing there was easier passage around the mountain's east side, we descended(the day's theme) east to duck the ever-present cliff bands. After 250-300 feet, we were greeted by a wide gully, and our first real rain of the day. The rain jackets went on yet the showers never got too heavy, so up we went. We stayed on the left side of the gully to its apex. From there, we followed the crest west over two small bumps to the top. Fortunately, it stopped raining right before the summit and we were able to see South Lookout Peak and the Battleship.
The complex East Face of South Lookout Peak
The Battleship, Colorado‘s largest avalanche trap
After a few minutes, the rain began to start back up so we high-tailed back down the gully. At its base, we came across a road which led us back to Aaron's vehicle. All said, it was a very productive day!